The Loquacious 'Newsroom'

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Emily Nussbaum backs up all my old suspicions of Aaron Sorkin's latest project:


Sorkin is often presented as one of the auteurs of modern television, an innovator and an original voice. But he's more logically placed in a school of showrunners who favor patterspeak, point-counterpoint, and dialogue-driven tributes to the era of screwball romance. Some of this banter is intelligent; just as often, however, it's artificial intelligence, predicated on the notion that more words equals smarter. Besides Sorkin, these creators include Shonda Rhimes (whose Washington melodrama, "Scandal," employs cast members from "The West Wing"); Amy Sherman-Palladino, of "The Gilmore Girls" (and the appealing new "Bunheads"); and David E. Kelley, who created "Ally McBeal" and "Boston Legal." Sorkin is supposed to be on a different level from his peers: longer words, worldlier topics. And many viewers clearly buy into this idea: years after Sorkin's terrible, fascinating "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" was cancelled, I still occasionally run into someone who insists that Americans were just too stupid to get it.

As Dan Rather might put it, that dog won't hunt. Sorkin's shows are the type that people who never watch TV are always claiming are better than anything else on TV. The shows' air of defiant intellectual superiority is rarely backed up by what's inside--all those Wagnerian rants, fingers poked in chests, palms slammed on desks, and so on. In fact, "The Newsroom" treats the audience as though we were extremely stupid. Characters describe events we've just witnessed. When a cast member gets a shtick (like an obsession with Bigfoot), he delivers it over and over. In episode four, there's a flashback to episode three. In a recent interview, Sorkin spoke patronizingly of cop shows, but his Socratic flirtations are frequently just as formulaic, right down to the magical "Ask twice!" technique. 

Here at home, Alyssa Rosenberg feels much the same:

The Newsroom appears to operate on a hierarchy of condescension. At the top is executive Charlie Skinner (Sam Waterston), who describes MacKenzie as if she's a fragile flower rather than an experienced war correspondent. He says, "She's mentally and physically exhausted...and she's been to way too many funerals for a girl her age. She wants to come home." Will, a notch below him, is unpleasant to everyone in sight, starting in the opening sequences, when he tells a college girl, "You are, without a doubt, the member of the worst period generation period ever period." (The show later validates Will's nastiness to her by making her seem spoiled and entitled: She sues her college for emotional distress.) Don (Thomas Sadoski), Will's soon-to-be-former executive producer, can't risk snarking on MacKenzie, his replacement, "She's like a sophomore poli-sci major at Sarah Lawrence." Jim, MacKenzie's deputy, snaps back: "She's exactly like that. I guess the only difference are her two Peabodies and the scar on her stomach from covering a Shiite protest in Islamabad." 

Sorkin's characters are often accused of sounding alike. Here, what they have in common is a sense that they're superior to someone who hasn't submitted to their needs, wishes, and worldview.

I really hope the next artist to tackle the problems of modern media can escape the haze of conservative nostalgia. There has to be a way to write about the destruction of newspapers, the problems of television news, and the rise of Wikipedia, without choosing between outright cynicism and "Kids today." There has to be a better, more nuanced way.
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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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